Impact of nest sanitation on the immune system of parents and nestlings in a passerine bird

Jessica K. Evans*, Simon C. Griffith, Kir K C Klasing, Katherine L. Buchanan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Bacterial communities are thought to have fundamental effects on the growth and development of nestling birds. The antigen exposure hypothesis suggests that, for both nestlings and adult birds, exposure to a diverse range of bacteria would select for stronger immune defences. However, there are relatively few studies that have tested the immune/bacterial relationships outside of domestic poultry. We therefore sought to examine indices of immunity (microbial killing ability in naive birds, which is a measure of innate immunity, and the antibody response to sheep red blood cells, which measures adaptive immunity) in both adult and nestling zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). We did this throughout breeding and between reproductive attempts in nests that were experimentally manipulated to change the intensity of bacterial exposure. Our results suggest that nest sanitation and bacterial load affected measures of the adaptive immune system, but not the innate immune parameters tested. Adult finches breeding in clean nests had a lower primary antibody response to sheep red blood cells, particularly males, and a greater difference between primary and secondary responses. Adult microbial killing of Escherichia coli decreased as parents moved from incubation to nestling rearing for both nest treatments; however, killing of Candida albicans remained consistent throughout. In nestlings, both innate microbial killing and the adaptive antibody response did not differ between nest environments. Together, these results suggest that exposure to microorganisms in the environment affects the adaptive immune system in nesting birds, with exposure upregulating the antibody response in adult birds.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1985-1993
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number13
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2016


  • Humoral
  • Cell-mediated
  • Microorganism
  • Sheep red blood cell
  • Avian immunity
  • Microbiome

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